In 1987 a police raid on a property in Lake Eildon discovered a score of children, all with identically dyed blonde hair, raised to believe that they were to be the new master race when the apocalypse finally claimed the old world. These stunning images and claims brought the beliefs of The Family to the Australian media. With the upcoming release of the documentary The Family we spoke to director Rosie Jones about those children, and the extraordinary survivor’s tale they have to tell of what was done to them in the name of belief.
Jones first came across the story researching a previous documentary Westall ’66: A Surburban UFO Mystery. “I was researching another film and I came across a woman that had suffered a mental breakdown and had gone to Newhaven clinic, and been given LSD and ECT (electroshock therapy). She told me about this woman she had met at the hospital that had taught her yoga, was very blonde and glamorous, and poured love on her. I discovered that this woman was part of a cult and told us of a whole lot of extraordinary things that had happened to her. It also made me recall, when I arrived in Melbourne a police raid at a place called Lake Eildon, and the image of these blonde children that were all over the press at the time.”
The blonde woman who taught yoga was Anne Hamilton-Byrne, leader of the cult known as The Family. A group that has been surrounded with allegations of abusive and extremely controlling behaviour. The accounts of some of the children brought up in this cult, and the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of its members (including drugging, malnourishment, and beatings) forms the basis of director Rosie Jones’ The Family. It was these children that the self styled messiah saw as part of the future “master-race”, and their story makes chilling cinema.
“The more I researched it, the more I thought this was up my alley as I am interested about issues of belief and faith. Not because I’m religious, but I don’t understand how people are, and a cult is such an incredible example of that ‘leap of faith’.”
Jones’ research process took about five years, as she contacted the children of the Lake Eildon raid, police officers involved in the investigation, and both former and current Family members. One of those major sources was officer Lex De Man, a police officer that was the criminal investigation (Operation Forrest) into the Family, who appears extensively throughout the film. He was the only officer to last through the entire investigation, as the details caused a number of hardened police investigators to transfer or take leave. This is a story that stretched across decades, as well as multiple countries, but also involves a cruelty and control inflicted on others that is shocking.
“The Family’s motto was; Unseen, Unheard, Unnoticed,” explained Jones, when asked how such things could go on for an extended period of time. “Unless you were part of the group, you wouldn’t really know. Anne also had a strong veneer of respectability, very middle-class people were following her (doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, nurses).” The Family gives an account of the cults extensive connection including ties to the highest levels of Australian business, academia, and politics. It also gives testimonial accounts of Anne Hamilton-Byrne dictatorial nature. Deciding every aspect of members lives, often driven by what seems like whim. Controlling marriages and breeding of members, as well as every aspect of the chosen children’s lives.
Even with The Family’s dramatically waning influence from it’s heyday, Jones sees the documentary as telling an important story. Indeed it is one that has encouraged other survivors to come share their tale with her after seeing the film. “At this point it’s particularly relevant, as there are so many instances of child abuse (in the news) that this fits with. I think it’s also a story of resilience. The people are survivors and there is a lot to learn from that. They have a lot to give to other people. It’s also empowering for those to finally break the silence.”